I was born in New York, but we moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania when I was about twelve, and most of my Thanksgiving memories are from the time when my family lived in a small early 1900s brick twin home (now referred to as a duplex) on the south side of the city, less than a block from the borough of Fountain Hill.
We grew up Roman Catholic, and my brothers, sister and I were all enrolled in St. Ursula’s Catholic School, so Thanksgiving Day always started out with morning mass at our parish church. There were six of us — my parents, three siblings, and myself — sharing one bathroom attempting to make it to church on time. Of course, that rarely happened.
We could have walked to church if we wanted — it was only 15 minutes away. But we never managed to get out of the house with time to spare. So we’d all pile into the car, and Dad would put pedal to the metal as we buzzed down the road hoping for the close parking space that would never appear. We’d hear the church bells — the second ones — the ones that signaled the beginning of mass and the fact that you were now officially late — as we drove around looking for a place to park. We’d roll out of the car, and make a mad dash for one of the side doors so as not to make too noisy an entrance. Quietly as possible, we’d open the doors and try to slip in unnoticed, dipping fingertips in the holy water font and blessing ourselves.
Fat chance! Regardless of our stealth, 90% of the heads would turn our way. The “holier than thou” in the front pews would not deign to give us notice. They’d just sniff, or frown, or sit a bit straighter. After all, it was just the Valentin’s, and we were always late.
I was the oldest child, so Dad would give me a little shove forward. I’d always move ahead with slumped shoulders and head hung in shame – crap, we were late again – do a dipsy-doodle genuflection and shuffle into a back pew with enough space to house the entire group.
But Dad would never be embarrassed or upset. He’d take his time, making a solemn genuflection and move casually into the pew, as though he had plenty of time to spare. Then he’d look around with a glimmer of humor in his eyes, smiling, waving, and nodding his head, pronouncing sotto voce Happy Thanksgivings to everyone whose eye he’d happen to catch. Then he’d look down at me and, with a quick wink, pick up a missal, and start participating in the ritual responses in a booming voice.
After mass, and some time waiting for Dad to finish glad-handing the priest and some fellow parishioner, we’d hurry back to the car and pile in, looking forward to watching the Macy’s Day parade on television and waiting for Mom to put the much anticipated turkey on the table.
My early memories of our Pennsylvania Thanksgiving meals are similar to a Norman Rockwell illustration — Dad standing at the head of the table with fork and knife in hand, doing his best to carve the turkey, Mom placing the last bowl of steaming vegetables on the table. The table would be piled with butter-topped mashed potatoes, yams, string beans, corn, gravy, can-shaped cranberry jelly, and Mom’s famous and fabulous rice, sausage and water chestnut stuffing. One of my brothers would be sneaking a piece of bread to the dog, the other on the verge of knocking over a glass of milk, and my sister reaching over and picking up a side dish to start passing around.
Thanksgiving dinner would end with our choice of Sara Lee pumpkin pie with Cool Whip, or Laneco apple pie topped with Breyer’s ice cream, and A-Treat soda. The fun would continue into the night — football games with chips and pretzels, occasional naps, and very full bellies. And holiday memories to last a lifetime.